Guest post by Stress Management Coach and certified Mental Toughness Trainer, Prentiss Rhodes.
If you are a fan of science fiction (as I am), then you are no stranger to the Star Trek mythos. In Star Trek, the eager cadets, in preparation for their lives in space on a starship, had to take a graduation exam. One of these exams was named, The Kobayashi Maru, after the eponymous civilian transport. The scenario put the candidate in an impossible situation. Successful completion of the simulation demanded that the candidate enters hostile space, save a marooned vessel with its passengers, and get out of dodge without picking a fight.
It is a test that is designed for the participant to fail because those cadets in that story needed to face extreme scenarios that seemed hopeless while also remaining in control of the situation.
Like the Kobayashi Maru, we all are presented with circumstances in our lives that cause extreme stress. There may be times when things appear hopeless—like you’ve been thrust into an impossible situation with no way out. Also, similar to this fictional scenario you have to take and remain in control of your immediate environment to get relief from those circumstances that are causing extreme stress.
So, our objective here is to give you strategies whenever you find yourself in the grips of extreme stress.
First a little extreme stress review
Stress, according to the American Psychological Association, is an uncomfortable emotional experience that is accompanied by changes in the body’s anatomy and physiology as well as the mood. Unattended this leads to a host of challenging conditions including cardiovascular and metabolic disease, physical pain, and even in some cases depression.
While there are many scenarios that cause stress, the usual suspects seem to be:
- Lack of Resources – This mainly includes time, money, emotional support, and overextension (trying to be everywhere)
- Internal Conflict – In this case, there’s the possibility that you deal with difficult emotions, which at their core are useful. Left unresolved, your conscious and unconscious mind begin to have sparring matches that pile on those aforementioned “uncomfortable emotional experiences.”
When we encounter stressful situations, your body normally handles them very well. In small doses, stress is a positive force in our lives. It enhances our brains and makes us smarter and stronger due to overcoming the stress-causing event. As we encounter various stressors, the body secretes hormones to provide the necessary energy to complete the designated task. AND everything goes back to normal when the job is done.
BUT it doesn’t happen like that, does it?
Faulty mental and emotional programs are held onto without getting resolution.
We overextend and over-commit WAY beyond the time that is useful.
The body is pushed well beyond the time that it signals it is breaking down.
We fool ourselves by saying that everything is o.k. when it clearly isn’t.
RARELY, if ever, do we ask for help.
When the body is kept under these conditions for an extended period of time simply it is driven to exhaustion – the point at which all of the various maladies start to creep into our lives.
The thing is…
We don’t really have to go through any of it….
The Flat Tire Metaphor Explains How We Fail To Deal With Stress
It would be much easier to handle the stressor, deal with the stress causing challenge programs, and move on.
What happens is that we only try to alleviate the symptoms. Now while that gives fleeting relief, the solution to the problem is never really addressed.
When you experience extreme stress and you try only to alleviate the symptoms with either substances or behaviors, it’s the same as driving around on a flat tire.
However, rather than do the right thing and repair the car, you stop to get a banana split. It feels good at the moment but does very little to fix the car. After a period of time, the car simply breaks down.
Similarly, when we experience the feelings caused by stress, we don’t handle the actual stressor but rather we numb the feeling. This often takes the form of useful remedies such as meditation, mindfulness exercises, breathing, progressive muscle relaxation…AND it also involves not so useful behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse among other risky behaviors.
The end result?
You do twice as much of whatever it is you’re doing to have the same stress relief effects to no avail. Eventually, the body breaks down — inflamed and depressed.
Foundation For Extreme Change: The Stress Equation
A key to successful stress management is based on the following equation:
Performance = Potential – Interference
Let’s take a look at each part of the formula above.
- Performance — The Action or outcome you’d like to accomplish.
- Potential — Your available resources that lead you to success
- Interference – Any action or behavior that creates a barrier to success
Our goal is to remove the interference and use our full potential in order to perform according to our wants.
Interference Pattern #1 – The Stress Glass
The interference that we experience is summed up nicely with a metaphor that we’ll call the “Stress Glass”. As we’ve noted, some stress is definitely good for you and the goal is not to live stress-free. Rather we want to shape things so that we’re really only dealing with manageable stress on an intermittent basis.
Or, in reference to the Stress Glass, the glass is half-empty.
Ideally, we want to keep the glass half-empty, dealing with the stress that comes from normal day-to-day challenges i.e. meeting sales projections at work, product development…and the list goes on. Include the efficient function of your household and this is normally enough to keep you stimulated without overdoing it.
It’s when we start to pour more into the glass that it becomes a problem. You get roped into obligations…You take on tasks in which you wouldn’t perform your best given present circumstances…Everyone else’s issues–their opinions, their problems — become your own with no reasonable outlet for yourself.
Again, on an intermittent basis, no problem, but when this becomes an ongoing thing….
Your cup runneth over and it’s now time to pour water out of the stress glass.
Interference Pattern #2 – The “I have to” vs. “I want to”
The rules of the game that we play center around the transfer of resources. You do something and you either receive or experience something in exchange.
- You work and get paid. Depending on the job you do, you’ll even get a bonus.
- You create a product that will revolutionize your industry and you’re rewarded.
- It brings joy to you to volunteer at a pet shelter.
When we find ourselves in an part of the interference comes from how we perceive the events around us. We tell ourselves little stories that sabotage the reason we do anything.
Many times we tell the story of having to do something out of some need.
“My job is important because I need money.”
“I have to create this new product because I need to keep up with the market demands”
“My social group says that I have to volunteer”
Really…you don’t have to do anything.
…but you take action for a reason.
You really don’t need anything beyond the basic needs of food, water, air, and shelter.
We want things on top of our basic needs because they provide us with a certain feeling. The provision of that feeling is what we’re really after.
A better idea is to center your purpose around “wanting” to do something that is in alignment with your values. You’ll be more focused and mindful of all of your actions with your wants, purposes, and values all on the same page. As a result of this, you’ll be more successful because you will have gotten rid of any resistance to taking decisive action
You want to work at this job because you now also have the lifestyle that you want.
That product challenges you to push the envelope on how you can make people’s lives more efficient.
And who doesn’t want to play with puppies and kittens? You get the idea. Dealing with extreme stress means doing what you must to keep that stress glass half-empty and only with the important things…even if you have to say no to someone you love dearly. This also means that you must SHIFT your
perspective of events to align them with your values.
Let’s take a look at this in action:
How Do You Manage Stress At Work – 3 steps
John is mid-level executive under pressure to get his division’s costs under control and his sales up by the end of the year or it will be phased out and he will most likely be forced to move his family to keep his job with the company.
This scenario is common in a competitive business landscape. The company must be efficient and also produce lest you are swallowed up by the sharks in the ocean.
Step One: Get your mind right
The first thing that would be useful to John is to frame this as a challenge in the positive. It’s very easy when presented with an ultimatum to go down the path of “Woe is me” and rattle off consequences that may happen at some undetermined future point in time.
Anything can happen at any time. The entire company could go out of business. A merger could take place and phase out his department anyway. That’s the price of being in business. An asteroid could hit the planet…and then the whole exercise of worrying about the future would be a futile one.
“What if’s” aren’t always helpful as is thinking that you have control over every outcome. You are not the “Master of the Universe.”
The good news is that he was given direct control of his fate. Things that are above his pay grade will do what they do.
To shift this to the positive, John should first view this as a challenge that he’d want to solve. Then it would be important to align this challenge with his values — ask himself what it would mean to make this current venture successful.
This is enough fuel to proceed with the right frame of mind.
Step Two: Systems Tune-up
The next step for John is to assess the current situation and eliminate the things that are a drain on the resources of his department. These are tough decisions for sure, but these are made easier by being in tune with his “Wants” and “Values”. Once the waste is eliminated, it’s now time to make the systems more efficient.
- Re-examine processes. Keep what is useful and discard the rest.
- Delegate tasks to members of the team.
- Place members of the team into roles in which they are best suited.
- Open lines of communication so that everyone is on the same page.
Step 3: Make the Goal a game
Once the team is on board with the new methods. It is important to get them to shift their perspective as well so that they want to be a part of the team. Create your desired outcomes, and make sales a game. Give the players a time-sensitive benchmark according to their abilities.
REWARD them for hitting the benchmarks. CELEBRATE the victories no matter how small. Shift perspective to view so-called “failures” as feedback and an opportunity for GROWTH.
Once the team buys into the “I want to do this for growth” mindset, you can definitely increase the difficulty of the GAME.
When it’s done, the chips will fall where they will but by shifting perspective, cutting the waste, and getting organized, John should be successful.
Ready For The World? Tips to manage new job and career stress.
Julie is a twenty-something just beginning her career constantly hearing not-so-subtle messages that to get ahead in this business, you’ve got to put in the hours and pay your dues…her health is deteriorating and her boyfriend is ready to leave her.
Julie’s situation is interesting because there are things that one must do on the way to leaving a mark in the chosen career path. However, at the point that health starts to deteriorate, all of the actions leading to advancement are counterproductive.
Also, it sounds like the support system is not there with the boyfriend.
Step One: What do you really want?
Many successful entrepreneurs and business people say that if you love what you do, then it isn’t work. Like John above, Julie must shift her perspective and nail down what she wants to do.
It’s very easy, especially just starting out to follow a path that you may not be invested because we’re living up to another’s expectations. It would be useful for Julie to nail down exactly why she wants that career. If the love of what she is doing isn’t at the top the list, it is going to be a tough road ahead.
The unconscious mind’s number one job is to protect the body from inherent danger. After that, it prioritizes things with the strongest sentiment. If the love of what you do is not high on your priority list then every task is going to be extra challenging to complete.
If you don’t love what you’re doing and have options, change directions while you’re ahead.
However, if you see yourself in this career path for life, create some specific goals that are going to push to the desired success. Make sure that you have time sensitive benchmarks, go out and hit those milestones. Goals work because they focus your energy. Without them, you’re all over the place without guidance which can lead you to do busy work instead of working efficiently.
Step Two: Golden Time
Work is busy at times, but without your health, you aren’t going to be very useful to yourself or others.
It would be beneficial for Julie to block out times when she is working on her health which could include prepping meals, exercise, getting the appropriate amount of sleep, and even performing stress reduction exercises.
Also, plan for short mental breaks over the course of the day. Taking little breaks will allow the brain to recharge. As a result, her productivity will be improved.
If this means some distractions need to go away to achieve this then…so be it. This doesn’t mean that she should take up the monastic lifestyle but rather she should be more judicious with her time.
Step Three: Remove Clutter
Relationships are both challenging and rewarding at the same time. Without speculating on the details of Julie’s relationship with her boyfriend, it seems to have run its course and may be at its final destination.
If the relationship is in a difficult period, they both need to air their dirty laundry. Struggling with difficult emotions is doing neither one of them any favors and is harmful to their well-being. We still feel those difficult emotions and the stress chemicals that come with them even though they’re not happening real time. The couple should come clean with one another no matter how difficult and if they find themselves at an impasse, then it’s time to move on.
It is not useful to hang on to difficult relationships if they do not sustain you.
Help for when you feel you’ve tipped the parental stress scale.
Mary is a mother of 3 kids 9, 12, and 16. Her daughter suffers from panic attacks. The youngest son has just been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD which will require special tutoring according to his teacher. Her 12-year-old is a standout soccer player and just joined a select club requiring lots of travel.
In addition to that, Mary’s mother calls her twice a day complaining about her aches and pains. and her best friend comes over crying from her recent divorce.
As parents and friends, or anyone who genuinely cares about others, we always want to do right by them. We want our kids to be healthy, happy and successful. In addition to that, we don’t want to see our friends and other loved ones in pain. So we do what we can to help.
The challenge then becomes that we have only so many resources available to make it all happen and we overextend ourselves to the detriment of our well-being.
Step One: Get Help
As much as we’d like to believe so, it’s not possible to do everything. In Mary’s case, we have to handle those challenges in the order of severity. When one challenge is stable move on to the next.
Hopefully, Mary has seen the appropriate mental health specialist for her daughter. Leveraging the professional can equip Mary with some interventions that will help her daughter manage her attacks.
For the youngest soon, many services are available already in the school. She only needs to request them. It would be useful for Mary to talk to a member of PTO and/or school administration to place her son in the appropriate place according to his needs.
Team travel is another full-time job by itself. Set up carpools with the other parents. If games take place out of state, rotate which families chaperone the events. When the load is spread between other families, it’s a win-win because it will free up time for everyone to tend to other duties.
Don’t be shy to ask other family members for help and make sure dad is on board as well, especially when there are three children involved.
Step Two: Create Boundaries
We never want to have a friend or a relative who’s a little down on their luck dealing with physical illness or relationship problems. In this scenario, give the struggles that Mary is going through she must pay close attention to the emotional energy she is taking on.
Mary should acknowledge the pain of her mother and friend, but if this is an ongoing event, it is to her benefit to gently suggest that they seek the appropriate support.
This serves a two-fold purpose.
First, if Mary truly cares about her friend and mother, she would want them to get the best help around in order to heal. Whether it is counseling for one and PT for the other, the pros help set up the best conditions for healing.
Second, Mary has a lot on her own plate and has limited mental and emotional resources with which to handle them. Repeatedly internalizing another’s stress while you handle your own is a great way to make your Stress Glass overflow. It would be helpful for Mary to have an honest conversation in which she, again, acknowledges their pain but at the same time creates a boundary so that her resources are not depleted. She should be firm with those boundaries as well.
Step 3: Unplug
Mary undoubtedly takes in a lot of information on a daily basis. She needs to create a sanctuary in which she has undisturbed time. This would be a great time to just breathe and create a state of relaxation in her own body.
While the causes of extreme stress are very much unique to the individual, they share a commonality.
Remember the equation Performance = Potential – Interference
The interference in this instance of the equation comes from the stress glass. It should be our goal to keep that glass half-full to address the intermittent stuff that we encounter. The next step is to remove the people, events, and things from our lives (or at least create boundaries) that cause our cup to run over.
Shift the experiences, where appropriate, to the positive and make sure that your stated goals align with your wants and values.
Schedule time for yourself and your health according to personal needs and be protective of this time. This is where you recharge the battery.
Using these strategies, unlike our starship cadets in the Kobayashi Maru scenario, you will have created a solution to the extreme stress that is affecting you. Through dedicated practice and adherence to these strategies, you are completely capable of busting your extreme stress.
About the author:
Prentiss Rhodes is a Stress Management Coach and Martial Arts Instructor specializing in assisting adults with clearing out the CAUSES of overwhelming stress using his unique, systematic process. https://stressmanagementcoach.org
Visit his website to Bust Stress and Fall Asleep Easily Tonight!
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